Monday, July 22, 2019

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (1935)

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a 12-chapter 1935 Universal aviation adventure serial. And it’s a pretty spectacular example of the breed. This was actually a follow-up to Universal’s 1934 Tailspin Tommy serial.

Tommy Tompkins (known as Tailspin Tommy and played by Clark Williams) and his pal Skeeter Milligan (Noah Beery Jr) work for Three Point Airlines. Their latest job is surveying an oil pipeline on the Pacific island of Nazil. The survey will be made by dirigible but the dirigible meets the fate that alas usually met such beasties - it runs into a typhoon and crashes. Just as Tommy has performed the daring feat of docking with the dirigible in mid-air.

The survey is resumed but using two aircraft - Tommy’s biplane and a cabin monoplane piloted by Betty Lou Barnes (Jean Rogers), the niece of oil tycoon Ned Curtis (Bryant Washbourne). But more trouble awaits our intrepid heroes.

There’s a virtual civil war raging on the island over control of both the island and the oil. It’s a war between two branches of the Casmetto family (there are two brothers who both seem to think they own the whole island) and there’s a traitor in the camp of the good guys. The bad guys also have an air force, led by a mysterious pilot with XX on his flying helmet. There’s also another mysterious pilot, known as The Eagle, who seems to be on the side of the good guys but no-one has any idea of his identity. There’s also a jovial Irish chef who is really a newspaperman and we’re not sure at first which side he’s on but he’s certainly in the thick of things.

The plot has all the standard serial elements with narrow escapes, the heroes getting captured, the heroine getting captured, a few double-crosses and an abundance of action. And of course a touch of romance. Betty Lou is clearly crazy about Tommy and Inez Casmetto, daughter of the good Casmetto brother, obviously thinks Skeeter is kinda cute.

Clark Williams as Tommy is an adequate hero. Noah Beery Jr as Skeeter steals every scene he’s in. Jean Rogers is adorable as feisty gal pilot Betty Lou Barnes. Needless to say she’s constantly getting herself into scrapes. There’s the usual assortment of heavies. The chief villains are certainly ruthless although perhaps not as colourful as one might like.

The aerial sequences are absolutely superb and are mostly original with surprisingly little use of stock footage. There are lots of dogfights but they’re mostly inconclusive, which of course is intentional - you don’t actually want the good guys shot down and you don’t want the bad guys shot down either, at least not until you’re getting close to the final chapter. While the bad guys and The Eagle have machine-gun on their aircraft Tommy’s aircraft is unarmed so when it comes to a dogfight he has to improvise a bit (such as tossing hand grenades at his aerial opponents). Perhaps it was felt that if Tommy flew an armed plane it would make him seem less of an insanely brave hero.

Most of the cliffhangers involve impending aerial disasters although sometimes the mix is varied a bit. Apart from air combats there’s plenty of gunplay on the ground. And since this is a serial there are of course some hidden passageways and some dungeons!

There’s certainly no faulting the job done by director Ray Taylor. He keeps things moving along and mostly avoids the slow patches that bedevil lesser serials. Serials are by their very nature formulaic and repetitive. The trick is to keep coming up with clever variations on the standard plot devices and cliffhanger endings. This serial on the whole manages to do that.

One thing that amuses me is that Nazil is supposed to be a Pacific island but everybody seems to be Mexican. And it all looks rather Californian.

An unfortunate feature of most serials is the flashback episode comprised mainly of footage from previous chapters. Happily there is no such episode in this serial.

The DVD (I believe there’s also a Blu-Ray) from VCI offers extraordinarily good transfers. Which is a major bonus in this case since the flying sequences look particularly impressive.

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a fairly conventional serial but it’s extremely well executed and it has terrific aerial stunts. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Princess of the Nile (1954)

It is 1249 and Egypt is groaning under the heel of the Bedouin warriors of the wicked Rama Khan (Michael Rennie). The virtuous Prince Haidi (Jeffrey Hunter), the son of the Caliph of Baghdad, has just arrived on the scene and he is not pleased with what he finds. The people seem to be on the brink of revolt, his trusted aide and friend has just been killed by a slab of masonry hurled from a rooftop by a member of the disgruntled populace and he has just been knifed by the beautiful fiery dancing girl Taura (Debra Paget). This sets the stage for Princess of the Nile, a lightweight but entertaining 1954 Technicolor costume epic.

Rama Khan is determined to destroy Prince Haidi and the feeling is mutual. The odds seem to favour Rama Khan, or they would favour him except that Rama Khan has another deadly enemy in the person of Taura. And he soon finds himself with a new enemy, the Princess Shalimar, daughter of the nominal ruler of Egypt, Prince Selim (the actual ruler is of course the Caliph in Baghdad). In fact the two women are one and the same woman, Taura being merely a disguise the princess puts on so she can keep in touch with the mood of her people. Of course it’s absolutely obvious to the viewer that Taura and the princess are the same woman but we’re expected to believe that nobody has ever noticed the resemblance.

Rama Khan is in cahoots with the evil Shaman who is plotting with Rama Khan. Taura on the other hand has the thieves of the city behind her and they prove to be quite formidable.

Of course the brave and noble Prince Haidi and the brave and spirited Princess Shalimar fall in love, and of course the wicked Rama Khan has plans to force the princess into marrying him.

I must say I’m a bit doubtful that a good Muslim woman like the princess would be offering up prayers to the goddess Isis. I rather suspect that the writers’ ideas about 13th century Egypt were somewhat sketchy.

Mostly this movie looks great although some of the matte paintings make the limited budget a bit obvious. There are some reasonably good action scenes, although of course full-scale battle scenes would have been too much of a stretch.

The underwater secret passageway leading from her bathtub which is employed by the princess to leave the royal palace discreetly is a nice touch.

The movie’s biggest minus is that the plot is thin and at times stretches credibility (even by the standards of costume epics). There’s also Jeffrey Hunter, a bit too stolid for this sort of movie. Michael Rennie is not a favourite of mine but he does quite well as Rama Khan.

Luckily there are plenty of pluses. The costumes are gorgeous. The support cast is excellent and it includes Michael Ansara, a particular favourite of mine. Also look out for Lee van Cleef in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part. There are lots of handmaidens so here’s a plethora of feminine pulchritude on display.

And there’s Debra Paget. First off she has a stunning figure and her costumes are artfully designed to ensure that we don’t overlook that important fact. She does a lot of dancing. Her dances are supposed to be sexy, and they are. She also gets to do some sword-fighting! And she’s perfectly cast. She’s tempestuous and passionate and headstrong and very keenly aware of her effect on men. She has the fiery temper you expect in beautiful princesses and glamorous dancing girls. Debra Paget’s problem as far as her career was concerned seems to have been that she was the right actress to play sexy temptresses in movies such as Princess of the Nile and when that genre began to fade her career faded. She gave up acting at the age of 30 to marry a millionaire. Princess of the Nile was her one real taste of stardom. A pity because she does the temptress thing with great style.

The Fox Cinema Archives made-on-demand release is an open matte transfer. Image quality is terrific. There are of course no extras.

This is very much B-movie stuff although it’s rather lavish for a B-movie (it was produced by Panoramic Productions which made lower budget films for 20th Century-Fox distribution). It’s a fun adventure flick but the main reason to watch it is to see Debra Paget strutting her stuff. Which she does so well that Princess of the Nile can be highly recommended.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Number Six (1962)

Number Six is one of the many Edgar Wallace adaptations done by Merton Park Studios in Britain in the early 60s. It’s an enjoyable little crime B-movie.

Charles Valentine (Ivan Desny) has never been convicted of any crime. In fact there’s never been enough evidence even to charge him. Nonetheless the police in several countries are very interested in Mr Valentine. He has had a number of very wealthy girlfriends, all of whom have met with sudden and very fatal accidents. He is strongly suspected of being a kind of modern Bluebeard. Now that he has taken up residence in the United Kingdom Detective Superintendent Hallett (Michael Goodliffe) of Scotland Yard is very interested in him indeed. Interested enough to give Number Six the job of keeping a very close eye on him. Only Superintendent Hallett knows the identity of Number Six. He could be one of a number of people close to Mr Valentine.

Valentine has now acquired a new girlfriend. Nadia Leiven (Nadja Regin) is young, beautiful, spoilt, arrogant and not very bright. And very rich.

Valentine has also acquired an associate, Jimmy Gale (Brian Bedford). Jimmy has a talent for disposing of inconvenient people, disposing of them in a very efficient manner. Jimmy has already made himself indispensable by eliminating a man who tried to kill Valentine.

The mystery element here is the identity of Number Six. There are only a few possibilities but we’re still kept guessing, and of course Charles Valentine is also kept guessing. He knows of the existence of Number Six because Superintendent Hallett made a point of telling him. It’s Hallett’s idea of psychological warfare. It’s the sort of thing Hallett enjoys  and it’s not a bad idea at that.

There is a clue to Number Six’s identity and like me you may end up kicking yourself for not noticing it.

The suspense element of course is whether Nadina Leiven will escape the fate of the other unfortunate young ladies who have become involved with Charles Valentine.

The acting is what one has come to expect of these Merton Park films. There are no big names but quite a few faces that will be familiar to fans of British movies and television of the era and the whole cast is extremely good. Ivan Desny is suitably smooth and sinister as Valentine. Michael Goodliffe (known to fans of cult TV as Hunter in the second season of Callan) was always good at this type of rĂ´le. Superintendent Hallett is a cheerful sort of policeman, addicted to crossword puzzles, willing to take risks but always very confident that he’s going to get his man. Nadja Regin is wonderful as the foolish spoilt brat Nadia. Brian Bedford is very creepy as Jimmy Gale. Joyce Blair adds some additional glamour as one of Valentine’s ex-girlfriends, nightclub singer Carol Clyde.

Robert Tronson made few feature films but had a very successful career as a television director. He does a brisk efficient job here. Screenwriter Philip Mackie provides quite a clever and nasty little plot. Mackie went on to do excellent work as a television writer for some of the most interesting British crime series of the 60s and 70s like Mr Rose, Raffles and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

The low budget is not a problem. In fact it’s not really a problem in any of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies. Solid scripts and fine acting are the things that distinguish a good B-movie from a bad one and Number Six has both of these highly desirable ingredients.

This film forms part of Volume 3 of Network’s Edgar Wallace collections. Volume 3 contains seven Wallace films plus a bonus film, Breakout. There are no extras apart from the illustrated booklet which includes brief essays on the films by Kim Newman. The anamorphic transfer is very good.

Number Six is a well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable example of the art of making B-pictures. It is highly recommended.